Breathing and Your Brain
It is well established that breathing patterns can influence state of mind and neural activity. For example, fast, shallow breathing is associated with anxiety, while slow, deep breathing is associated with relaxation. However, it is less well known that changing one’s breathing pattern can actually lead to changes in the brain.
Brain changes that can occur through changing breathing patterns have been the subject of much recent scientific study. These studies have revealed that there are neural changes that happen when someone switches from normal, everyday breathing to a more deliberate, regulated pattern of breathing. This switch activates a neural loop that includes the pre-Bötzinger complex, an area of the brainstem responsible for breathing rhythm generation.
This complex is important because it helps to control the rate and depth of breathing.
One study found that participants who learned to breathe slowly and deeply (a technique known as “coherent breathing”) showed increases in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, regions associated with memory and learning. The participants also showed decreases in activity in the amygdala, a region associated with fear and anxiety. These changes were observed after just three minutes of coherent breathing.
These findings suggest that changing one’s breathing pattern can lead to changes in neural activity and perhaps even brain structure. This has implications for a wide range of conditions, from anxiety disorders to chronic pain. It may even be possible to use breath work to enhance cognitive performance and protect against age-related mental decline.
There are various types of breathing techniques that can be utilized in my breathwork programs, each with its unique benefits. Here are some examples:
Exhalation-based practices: Breathing techniques that emphasize extended exhales, such as the 4-7-8 breath (inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, exhale for 8 counts), can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s relaxation response. These practices can help reduce anxiety, stress, and tension, and promote a sense of calmness and tranquility. Extended exhales are also known to slow down the heart rate and lower blood pressure, making them beneficial for improving sleep quality and managing stress-related conditions.
Inhalation practices (e.g. Wim Hof Method): Inhalation-based breathing practices such as the Wim Hof Method involve intentionally taking in deep, rapid breaths, followed by breath holds. These practices can help increase oxygen intake, raise energy levels, and promote a sense of invigoration. They are believed to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to increased alertness, improved circulation, and enhanced physical performance.
Buteyko practices: The Buteyko Method is a type of breathing technique that focuses on reducing air volume and optimizing respiration. It emphasizes nasal breathing, gentle breath holds, and reducing excessive breathing patterns. Buteyko practices aim to improve carbon dioxide tolerance, increase oxygen utilization, and restore optimal breathing patterns. Benefits may include improved respiratory function, reduced chronic hyperventilation, better oxygenation of tissues, and reduced symptoms of respiratory conditions such as asthma.
Breath holds: This technique involves intentionally holding the breath for a brief period of time, either after inhaling or exhaling. Breath holds can increase lung capacity, improve oxygen utilization, and activate the relaxation response.
Diaphragmatic breathing: Also known as belly breathing or deep breathing, this technique involves consciously inhaling deeply and fully utilizing the diaphragm, which is a dome-shaped muscle located below the lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing helps to increase oxygen intake, activate the relaxation response, reduce stress, and promote calmness and mental clarity.
Coherence breathing: Coherence breathing techniques involve rhythmic and balanced inhales and exhales, typically at a slower pace, to create a state of physiological coherence, where the body’s systems are in sync and functioning harmoniously. This can result in reduced stress, improved emotional regulation, and enhanced mental and physical well-being. Coherence breathing practices are often used in heart rate variability (HRV) training, which has been linked to improved cardiovascular health, better stress resilience, and enhanced cognitive function.
It’s important to note that the benefits of these breathing techniques may vary from person to person, and it’s essential to practice them mindfully and under the guidance of a qualified instructor or practitioner, particularly if you have any underlying health conditions. Proper technique, duration, and frequency of practice should be